Laws tend to be about following rules, something that many homesteaders aren’t necessarily keen on embracing. Matt Wilkinson shares his take on existing small-scale poultry keeping and chicken processing laws and how you can make them work for you.
Skeptic and Solution Finder
I’ve never enjoyed being told what to do, especially if I could see no value in the reason given. I’ve found that many government regulations involving agriculture fall within that category. That being said, I’ll explain the United States’ stance on poultry processing, and I’ll also do my best to provide a picture of how municipalities view chicken ownership. I must advise all readers that I’m not a proponent of the overreaching government regulations as they pertain to agriculture, but nor am I anti-government. I am, however, definitely on the side of the fence that believes many local governments are poorly informed or antiquated in their laws as they pertain to agriculture. Times are a-changing, and Big Brother needs to catch up.
No Rhyme or Reason
There seems to be no rhyme or reason when it comes to where chickens can be kept. New York City has long been a refuge for domesticated pigeons, and has always welcomed chicken ownership. In fact, the New York City health code, Article 161.19, clearly states chickens may be kept in all districts within New York City. Yet in my former town of Princeton, New Jersey, it’s forbidden to keep chickens. Huh? New York City can, but not Princeton, New Jersey? You’ll see this trend throughout the U.S. in many urban areas. There’s no sense to it. Yet that is the position we find ourselves in. I was encouraged after speaking with Mr. Bridger of Princeton, New Jersey’s zoning office. (No, I don’t have his first name, ’cause I try to keep those meetings short and sweet.) Mr. Bridger was gleeful in his announcement that Princeton would soon pass a zoning ordinance allowing chickens on certain lot sizes. The town that’s home to Princeton University finally got smart!
Personal, but Not Always Private
I’ve always adhered to the practice of keeping my agriculture activities to myself. While living on my ¼-acre lot in Princeton, New Jersey, I kept three Rhode Island Red laying chickens. They lived in my backyard coop, positioned over a compost pile. I never had a rooster, as that would’ve surely given away my lawless behavior. In order to keep my chickens, I happily shared my eggs with my neighbor, and he became as attached to the girls as I did, feeding and even naming them! Other than him, I kept the fact that I had chickens to myself. I’d venture to say many other people do the same. Why?
I’ve found that government officials have a very limited vocabulary regarding chickens. They’re great at saying, “No. Stop doing that. It’s not allowed.” It’s going to be a very painful ordeal if such an official finds out that you have chickens where there’s some antiquated rule that states “no livestock within town/city limits.” These same officials will tell you that they only enforce rules when someone complains. Unfortunately, there are loads of complainers!
Placating Neighbors and Officials
I found this out the hard way. Needing more land, I moved from Princeton into rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey. I brought along my three chickens, and eventually increased my flock to 30. At some point, a neighbor who could see my property complained, and, sure enough, in trotted the zoning officer.
When the dust settled, I wasn’t allowed to have a chicken coop, but I could have chickens. Don’t ask me why! It was mind-numbing how a town that prides itself in its agricultural practices could allow someone such as myself to own poultry, but not to house them! I was told I couldn’t have any type of farm structure, even though I lived within the “agriculture zone.” A chicken coop was considered a farm structure.
I discovered the solution to this problem from a nearby farmer: Put my 4- by-8-foot chicken coop atop a trailer, thus creating a non-permanent structure that somehow wasn’t viewed as a permanent building. Ludicrous, yet those are the kinds of things government officials drum up.
Do Your Research and Weigh Your Options
If you want to own chickens, here are a couple of suggestions:
-Look up your town’s regulations without providing too much background information on yourself. It’s never a good idea for these government offices to become familiar with you and your home. If there are no specifically stated regulations that prohibit poultry or livestock, then have at it.
-If there are restrictions, see if you can work within them. Maybe establishing a 4-H project will allow a few birds?
-You could also see if a seasonal relationship with chickens could work. I’ve been noticing a budding industry of “renting a flock.” It’s just like it sounds. You contact a company that brings over a small coop with a few birds, and you “chicken-sit” the birds for a period of time.
Keeping Healthy Birds and Fairly Happy Neighbors
So, you finally decide to go all in and get chickens. That’s great, but let’s not have those new feathered friends cause you any troubles. Chickens, like all animals, require care and attention. Any poultry owner needs to employ sound and dedicated animal husbandry practices.
Make sure your flock and poultry area are well cared for. Rats and other rodents are a sure-fire way to upset surrounding neighbors. Place rodent traps around your poultry coops. Properly dispose of deceased birds and any animal parts through processing. Regularly clean coops to remove manure smells and excess fly buildup. Keep your chickens and their home clean! Everyone will be happier – the birds, you, and your neighbors.
I did all the above-mentioned things to prevent any problems, and kept my actions as they pertain to my poultry as quiet and out-of-sight as possible. Our complaining neighbor has moved, and I now have new neighbors who love our chickens – even our rooster! Many people keep their chicken ownership very covert. To me, this is a huge shame. Chickens bring joy to so many people for such varied reasons. We want to spread the word and the joy of poultry pride!
Processing Poultry is a Game Changer
If owning a chicken can be challenging, how about butchering them? Fortunately, the U.S. government has weighed in on this one: If a person is allowed to own poultry, that same person can butcher their birds and even sell them! How many? Uncle Sam says up to 1,000 birds can be processed and sold without going through a USDA processing plant. Those 1,000 birds include chickens and turkeys. You can have any combination of the two types of birds, adding up to the magic number of 1,000.
State and Federal Variations
My home state of New Jersey doesn’t have any specific regulations pertaining to poultry processing; it defers to the U.S. government. Not every state is the same. There are at least 14 states that have enormous quantities of regulations on what hoops a person must jump through in order to process their poultry.
Go to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network to find out what your state’s laws are.
States Rights and How You Can Cope
Every state has their own stance on poultry processing, so familiarize yourself with your specific state’s position. There are a few do’s and don’ts that I’ve learned over the last decade while processing birds.
-If your property provides privacy, take advantage of it.
-Locate an area that’s out of view and doesn’t disturb anyone around you. Pay attention to common sense practices.
-Don’t process near a stream, brook, or any other type of water source.
-When dumping your scalding water, be aware of water drainage routes and drinking water sources.
-Processing any type of poultry is going to generate waste, such as feathers, feet, heads, and other organ parts. You have two options. Either compost the byproducts, or place them in a garbage bin. When we have hogs, most of the unwanted poultry parts go right to the pigs, and the hogs are thankful for it. If using a compost pile, make darn sure the chicken parts are well-covered and can’t be dug up by foraging animals. I have on more than one occasion found a chicken head dropped far from our steamy compost pile.
Municipalities in the Act
Most municipalities frown on the idea of animal processing. There will be anti-processing zoning ordinances created to combat such things as home deer processing. These regulations are often written in such a way to be quite vague, allowing any zoning officer the latitude to interpret and apply them in any way they see fit. Realize that no government official will ever factor in the possibility that they may get into trouble by their own ruling when interpreting laws. They’ll always err on the side of caution, which means you’ll be told to stop doing whatever they’re investigating. Because of this, I go out of my way to keep all of my farm activities within good farming practices. We don’t advertise our poultry processing business; I’ve learned that anything in writing is a sure-fire way to get the government interested in you. Word of mouth is what keeps us going. If people can’t see what you’re doing and can’t find any evidence from what you’ve done, there’s no smoking gun! Keep your activities private, and clean up after yourself.
Don’t Let the Red Tape Stop You
Owning poultry has been such a pleasure for our entire family. The birds have entertained us, fed us, and brought money into our home. We’ve enjoyed the antics of our flock and learned valuable lessons from our daily responsibilities as caregivers for these birds. I can think of no child or adult who wouldn’t benefit from owning a few birds of their own. Do your homework, find out what the regulations are within the area you live, and get going with chicken ownership.
You’ll be very happy that you did!
Matthew Wilkinson is known for his humor, knowledge, and easy-to-understand explanations of homesteading techniques and systems. Wilkinson and his family own and operate Hard Cider Homestead in rural East Amwell, New Jersey.